DIY

How to Rescue a Smelly Soft Chair

Reader Contribution by Kristi Nebel
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Reupholstered chair, photo by Kristi Nebel

This is a story of two curbside cast-offs, and a tale of two pink chairs.  Now I should precede this episode with my own hypocrisy on the topic of furniture left on curbsides.  I’ve got a whole high-minded, judgemental rant about it.  I’ve long held a firm belief that people who do this cling to the foolish notion that there is such a thing as a garbage fairy who magically picks up their unwanted furniture.  Furthermore, they are: a) too lazy to take it to the dump, and b) contributing to my neighborhood blight.  Sadly, they ignore the all-too-frequent disassembly of sofas by homeless people taking away the cushions for bedding.  And lastly, in a very wet climate such as mine, they somehow think padded furniture will disappear before being ruined by rain and subsequent mildew. 

But a few days ago, all that changed for me.  I had a pink winged, tufted Queen Anne chair covered in vinyl which had been my favored reading chair for 33 years.  It was purchased for $100 and not from a well-respected source of fine furniture.  I got bored one day and decided to rearrange the books on my shelf beside it, without moving it first.  I kneeled on the vinyl to do the job, and when I was done looked down at the vinyl to find that my knees had split the vinyl in numerous places.  I wasn’t broken-hearted.  I just made up my mind that it had served me well and it was time for a replacement.

Chair Rescue

So, I began shopping on-line for a used chair as similar to it as I could find.  A few days went by of searching with no luck.  In fact, I wasn’t even seeing new chairs like it, nor anything that appealed to me.  Then two days ago while driving home after a performance, we dropped off the third member of our folk trio in our neighborhood, and my eyes fell on a pink winged, tufted Queen Anne chair on a curbside.  My very compliant, patient husband backed up our car so I could give it a better look.  I sniffed the cushions and looked closely at the upholstery for cat-scratch damage.  All looked good, in fact, considerably better than the one I ruined.  The upholstery was heavy velour and the woodwork had more detail; it was bigger as well.  This was clearly no cheap $100 chair.   I was delighted.  Here comes the hypocritical part of the story.  We first went home and put our beat-up vinyl chair on the curbside in front of our house.  Then we went back in hopes the other (most-wonderful) chair was still on the curb.  We were in luck!   We put it in the car and headed home.  Just as we were about to turn into our driveway, we spotted a young woman in shorts and high heels trotting happily down the street with our old chair in her arms.

Malodorous Mystery

We lugged our “new” find into our living room and began to notice a smell.  Don’t ask me how I missed it at first.  It seemed to get stronger and stronger by the minute.  I couldn’t quite place the origin of the offensive stink, and in retrospect suspect I believe were several; possibly a leaky baby, an old man, and without a doubt a dog.   After washing the foam in the bath tub, I found a surprising amount of soot residue that I think could only have been left by a dog. 

I found a box of Arm & Hammer Carpet & Room Extra Strength Odor Eliminator (available at Target) and followed directions, sprinkling it all over the chair, then vacuuming it up.  Then the chair smelled like a combination of that product and the other strong, nasty smell.  On closer inspection it was clear to me the problem was in the cushion.  Once I removed the cushion the chair smelled fine.  The carpet deodorant succeeded in removing any odors in the rest of the chair.  I could see someone had unzipped the cover and begun to try to pull out the foam inside the cushion.  I believe that said someone got discouraged by the muscle required to do so, as well as the prospect of cleaning the foam itself which clearly had a very bad smell. 

Deconstructed chair cushion. Photo by Kristi Nebel

My aim in writing this is to discourage anyone from dumping a good chair just because it reeks so badly that no one in the house can stand it anymore.  Here’s where my determination to tackle the problem begins.  I had experience cleaning pillows in my bathtub and figured this couldn’t be much more difficult.  Anyway, what could I lose if I failed?  It was a free chair to begin with!  Removing the cushion did take a bit of effort.  But I had a plan and a few warm, sunny days ahead. 

Instructions

  1. Remove the cushion. Sprinkle the entire surface of the rest of the chair with Arm & Hammer Carpet & Room Extra Strength Odor Eliminator.  Then vacuum it up.  
  2. Fill the bathtub with enough very hot water to cover the cushion; about 5” deep. Add about an ounce of Clorox Scented Splash-less Concentrated Formula chlorine bleach (available here: https://www.acehardware.com/departments/home-and-decor/laundry-care/bleaches/).  This may seem a bit harsh but in this time of pandemic seemed to be the better part of caution to me. 
  3. Set the cushion on the water and push it down to soak. Sprinkle about two ounces of Gain Ultra Concentrated Aroma Boost liquid clothing detergent (available here: https://www.target.com/p/gain-aroma-boost-original-scent-liquid-laundry-detergent-165-fl-oz)  on the foam.  I chose this because I was hoping its pleasant scent would abate the strong odor in the foam, and it worked as I’d hoped. 
  4. Now, remove your shoes and socks and step all over the foam. This will distribute the detergent and soak it as well as the water into the foam.  Step aside and flip over the foam.  Repeat the process with another ounce and a half of detergent on the other side.
  5. Drain the tub and rinse out the detergent with another 5” of water. Drain again and fold the foam in half.  Walk all over the foam to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. 
  6. Get out of the tub and set five or six bath towels on the floor, in a square large enough to fit the foam. Set the foam on three of the towels, and cover with two more.  Walk all over the foam to soak up as much water as possible.  The foam by now should feel just slightly damp, not wet.
  7. Wash the upholstery fabric cushion-cover in your washing machine using the same detergent, in hot water on a full wash cycle with a second rinse, set on slow / hand wash speed.
  8. Set the foam outdoors in the sun to dry. I left the foam cushion out in the sun for a full day in spite of the fact that it felt dry after a few hours.  Foam absorbs so much moisture that it’s best to be safe with the drying to avoid mildew later, from hidden moisture deep inside the foam.  Do this also with the upholstery fabric.  This serves the purpose of killing any remaining bacteria with sunlight.
  9. Re-insert the foam cushion into the cavity of the fabric cover, taking time to carefully push and prod, fitting the corners and curves into place.

In retrospect I’m quite sure the practice of washing upholstery in a washing machine is considered inadvisable by furniture manufacturers.  And as one can see from the photo, the resulting effect is crinkled velour, which may be seen as less than aesthetically optimal. 

Clean cushion cover. Photo by Kristi Nebel.

I guess I’m innately a wrinkled American; I might have tried ironing it, I suppose.  But I believe in time it will smooth out from being sat on.  I did it because I wanted to make sure to get out that wretched odor from a good hot soak in water as opposed to dry cleaning, and also with the advantage of a scented detergent.  It was a way of dealing with a very stubborn odor.  In any case, it didn’t shrink such that the foam couldn’t be re-inserted into it.  And it smells great now!

Other Options

This isn’t a simple solution to a stain on your furniture.  There are experts who can guide you in that direction, such as the this website.  Rather, it’s intended for a cushion with foam that has been soaked through with urine or other stubborn, rank smells.  Nor is it a primer on how to disinfect your furniture from possible COVID-19 infection exposure.   The Bertolini manufacturers of cleaning products states this from their website.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends using the following products to sanitize against the coronavirus:

  • Asepticare™
  • Bleach 1:10 (10% bleach)
  • Bleach-Rite® Disinfecting Spray
  • CaviCide™
  • CaviCide1™
  • Clorox® Healthcare Bleach Germicidal Cleaner
  • Clorox® Hydrogen Peroxide Cleaner Disinfectant Spray
  • Diversey™ Avert® Sporicidal Disinfectant Cleaner
  • Lysol’s Clean & Fresh Multi-Surface Cleaner
  • Oxivir® 1 RTU
  • Oxivir® TB
  • OxyCide™ Daily Disinfectant Cleaner
  • Vire

In summary, don’t throw out that expensive chair just because your grandson got out of your sight before you could get the diaper on him and he dashed around peeing everywhere, and the dog claimed it as his favored spot every time it came indoors after a good splash in a muddy puddle, and your incontinent grandmother-in-law came to visit again (with whom you’re not comfortable enough to mention the unmentionable).  Just roll up your sleeves, take off your shoes and socks and fix it!

Kristi Nebel is a musician and a local activist in the Tacoma Veterans for Peace chapter. She has done nine tours of the U.K. with her husband, Steve, and plays bass as well as sings original Americana. She has filled her shelves and freezer so far this year with the harvests from nine crops of fruit and vegetables and eats from them every day.  Find her at sknebel.com. You can read all of Kristi’s Mother Earth News posts here.


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